March 31, 2008

Weekends Are Light

The past couple of weekends, I haven't blogged at all. Too busy, then too lazy. Mowing the lawn consumes energy and time. Then other stuff has to get done that there's no time for during the work week, taking care of the house most of the time. This weekend, which will be the height of the poppy season, will likely see us cleaning out our garage. Readership is low on the weekends anyway. I got spiked with readers last week but this week I'm down to about my regular 100 unique readers a day. But, I'm still averaging over three posts a day and will exceed 1,110 posts for the year at this rate. Hopefully, I get good at it eventually.

DNC Credentials Committee Explained

Political rules junkies will love this. It gets astonishingly intricate. Read the comments -- Dean's selection to this committee was already made months ago, and they're all superdelegates already.

It basically comes down to whoever has the most pledged delegates will control the committee. And a 20% minority vote can force a floor fight of all the seated delegates. Thus will the fate of the Florida and Michigan delegations be determined.

There Must Be Some Kind Of Way Out Of Here

Friday, 4-4. Season Four. Then there will be no more. Get your geek on.

This creature feature, by the way, looks too cheesy to even be real. Makes me really miss my TV.

Is There A Liquidation Market For This Stuff?

Spungen wrote about this a few days ago. But my audience is a little different than hers (although there is some overlap) so maybe Readers here can come up with their own ideas.

A while back, the firm got a judgment against a guy who runs a head shop -- a judgment for something like sixty grand. It's quite unlikely that the judgment debtor (who was foolish enough to sue our client and now must pay for the privilege of having lost) will ever voluntarily pay the money. Nor is he likely to ever have enough cash on hand to make a till tap* useful.

So our idea is that we'll seize the inventory and do a Sheriff's sale. But some of the material it's quite likely the police will not sell -- the bongs, pipes, clips, scales, and other paraphernalia obviously meant to assist with the consumption of drugs. And I don't think they're allowed to re-sell the tobacco and legitimately tobacco-related products, either. So that leaves the balance of the guy's inventory: tall stacks of pornographic DVD's and various sex toys like vibrators and love-gels.

Now, my great suspicion is that these products are sold with incredibly high retail markups. The demand curve for these products is high enough to make them relatively price-insensitive. I had a law clerk many years ago who had worked for a company that produced these movies, and his analysis of the business was that the entire cost of production for each movie -- the actors, the crew, the sets, the costs of the DVD's and the expense of burning them, taxes, fees, licenses, transportation, even craft services -- was recouped in the shipping and handling charges for direct-mail orders. Everything else was pure, sweet profit.

And it kind of has to be -- retail space, for any kind of product, is very expensive. How many tubes of Joy-Juice and copies of Sinful Sorority Secrets Volume XVIII** do you think the local adult novelty store sells in a week? I'd expect that most of the retail outlets selling these only move a few pieces of product a day in most markets. So one unit has to produce enough profit to justify all the shelf space that it and its copies take up, gathering dust until the manufacturer buys them back. The economics of porno requires a high markup for the business to be profitable for the retailer.

Because of that, I question whether we could even find a wholesale market for this stuff -- would some other adult products store be willing to take the product off our hands? They can get it so cheap at the wholesale level from their existing suppliers that it seems like they wouldn't pay enough at a Sheriff's auction to even recover the costs. (The deputy who oversees the seizure, the laborers who move the boxes, the cost of the storage, and the auctioneer's fee all have to be paid out of the proceeds of the sale.) And no one is willing to actually go to the incredibly time-consuming, bothersome, and generally icky extent of retailing this stuff ourselves.

So, Readers, I'm looking for one of two pieces of information. First -- am I wrong, and will there be a significant market of retailers who would show up to buy this product at auction prices? Second -- if I am right and an auction isn't going to recover the cost of the seizure and sale of the inventory, can we do anything profitable with it? (And no, we can't just give it to all of you without violating about nine hundred various state, federal, and probably international laws -- a huge amount of which have to do only with the payment of taxes -- about who can ship this sort of product through the mail.)

* I got to do a till tap once. Incredible fun. The Sheriff's deputy who got the job of executing my writ called me up and told me when to meet him at the retail store that owed my client money. We walked in together and went immediately to the manager, who was working the cash register. The deputy presented the writ to the manager and instructed him to open up the register. He took out all the bills, counted them out to me, and wrote the manager a receipt. As we walked out, a little kid pointed and said, "The lawyer and the cop just robbed the store!" The debtor paid the rest of his judgment by a check the next week.

** Sinful Sorority Secrets # XII was really the best of the series, so it's no wonder if Volume XVIII moves a little slower. Now that I think about it, there no doubt really is a series of videos called Sinful Sorority Secrets and I've just unwittingly violated someone's copyright while trying to crack a joke. Fair use! Fair use!

Superdelegate Edge

Überfrau Hillary Clinton has always had the advantage of what I've periodically called the "inside game" -- the lists of fundraising sources grown since 1989 when Bill took over the Democratic Leadership Conference; the myriad of favors personally owed to the Clintons left over after eight years of controlling the White House and seven more of raising funds and making personal appearances for pols in tight races; and the number of people whose jobs, whether elected or not, were owed due to the Clintons pulling strings for people.

As a result, it's been no surprise to a lot of people that Hillary Clinton would have the advantage earning the support of the nearly 800 "superdelegates" -- the (not quite) one-fifth of delegates scheduled to sit and vote at the Democratic National Convention who get the right to attend and vote not because they were chosen by their state's caucuses or primaries, but because they hold, or have held, high political office, or are high-level officers of their state party organizations, or because they have exercised substantial influence in major campaigns and fundraising efforts of the party. These are the elites of the Democratic Party, and the conventional wisdom has always been that they prefer Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama.

Or do they now? According to the Wall Street Journal's tally, Since Super-Duper Tuesday in February, seventy-three superdelegates have issued endorsements, and sixty-four of them have been for Obama. Clinton has 250 superdelegate endorsements, and Obama has 217. And Obama is about to get seven more. (Since I know it's going to happen, I'm adding them to my delegate count right now, as well as Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey's endorsement, which may mitigate Clinton's lead in Pennsylvania somewhat.)

As I've noted before (and by now, many others have too), being ahead in the delegate count at the end of the primary season ought to be enough to eventually go over the top, even without the nomination clinched at the close of the primaries. Some politicians have called Obama's nomination "inevitable" and over the weekend, Sen. Patrick Leahy called for Sen. Clinton to withdraw from the race for the sake of party unity. There have actually been calls for Clinton to pursue the Governorship of New York. New Yorkers themselves are so far cool to the idea, although their new Governor has not turned out to be everything they might have hoped for.

Gratefully, no one in a position to actually do anything of consequence has joined that call. Senator Clinton, of course, has not withdrawn from the race and instead announced that she's in it all the way -- she's going to the convention with her delegates voting for her, damnit. Senator Obama has said that as far as he's concerned, she can run as long as she wants. DNC Chairman Howard Dean has been putting his head together with several other honchos like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, but has not and will not call for an end to the elections.

Nor do I want him to. Taking the convention to a floor fight will weaken the Democratic Party's unity come November. As intriguing and beguiling as Barack Obama might be, I just don't like his platform as much as John McCain's take on the same old GOP stuff we all know and have lived with for the past eight years. McCain is moderately better on civil rights than Bush, a damn sight better on foreign policy, he's a budget hawk, he's for free trade, he's for generally realistic and beneficial immigration reform, and with luck he'll have a Veep and some advisors who can tell him what to do about the economy and taxes. Health care, Iraq, Social Security reform -- these are all things that fall into the range of "least bad" policies rather than actual solutions anyway.

We Are Not All Becoming Muslims So Calm Down Already

There are sure to be lots of people who read this bit of demographic news and react in a panic. (Gates of Vienna, I’m looking at you.) But there’s no reason to panic at all. RTFA and you will find that the article says that Muslims now outnumber Catholics.

But this is comparing only Granny Smith apples to every variety of orange. “Catholics” are one kind of Christian. There are Orthodox, Coptic, Anglican, and Protestant Christians as well, a fact which the Vatican well recognizes. The Vatican does not say Muslims outnumber Christians. Indeed, it’s quite clear that globally, Christians still outnumber Muslims by a ratio of about 5 to 3. And if you’re going to compare “Catholics” to some other kind of denomination, you need to compare them to other denominations within their umbrella religions. For instance, compare Catholics to Sunnis, or Hassidic Jews to Zen Buddhists.

There are just over six billion people in the world. One-third of them, two billion, are Christian of one kind or another. Of those two billion Christians, 1.13 billion are Catholics. It is generally assumed that there are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. But it is not known how many of them are Sunnis, Shias, Sufis, or other kinds of sects within Islam.

I also know some folks who take it as axiomatic that Europe is being “Islamicized” through inter-generational growth of Muslims. The theory goes that Christian, Jewish, and secular Europeans are not having nearly as many children as Muslim Europeans are. Therefore, in a generation or so, Muslims are going to outnumber other factions. (Every person who has ever made such a suggestion to me coincidentally has held very intense Christian religious beliefs.)

I don’t think this can possibly be correct. There are about 15 million Muslims in the EU and another 20 million or so in Russia (I assume this number includes both the European and Asian states of Russia). The EU’s total population is over 490 million and its overall birth rate is just over the number necessary sustain that level of population. That means that less than 3.1% of Europeans are Muslim. Even if the Muslim population doubles every generation (and their children do not secularize), the EU would still not be majority-Muslim until the twenty-third century. This isn't something that we have to worry about yet, if at all.

is at greater demographic “risk” of becoming majority-Muslim, with its 141 million people – meaning about one in seven Russians is Muslim. But on the other hand, something less than two in seven Russians is Christian (with the majority of them being Orthodox) and the remaining four in seven are secular. What’s more, Russia’s population is in decline, as its death rate (16 per 1,000) is greater than its birth rate (10 per 1,000) and there is net emigration from Russia to other lands.

Nevertheless, we will not see, in our lifetimes, a majority Muslim Russia, much less a majority Muslim Europe or even less likely, a majority Muslim America. I might add that especially Muslims growing up in Western Europe will notice that many their peers are secular or only pay the barest amount of lip service to their religions, and are all perfectly happy and successful. This will (for the most part) have a secularizing, or at least moderating, effect on the view of such youth towards their own religion.

One thing I will note -- secular people (atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and such) do not go around killing other people to make them set aside their faiths. If we want peace on this Earth, it will be found in the absence of religion, not the triumph of one religion over another.

Ask A Rabbi

A rabbi from a conservative congregation asks (and answers) a relatively simple question:
What would you say… to an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor who was unmoving in his conviction that all Germans were evil? What would you say to this person, who refused to interact with anyone German, no matter whether they were present at, involved in or even alive during World War II? … [O]f course [you] would repudiate the views of that person without cutting them off entirely.
Just so. The Holocaust survivor is wrong, obviously so – but you can understand why he’s wrong and you can hardly be surprised at his feelings. And while you might strenuously disagree with his opinion, you would still embrace him with love and welcome him into your community and maybe even into your house from time to time. And you would resist the calls of other people that you act ashamed for having done so, despite the obvious wrongness, and indeed offensiveness, of the anti-German prejudice your friend evidenced.

The analogy isn't perfect, of course. But it's close enough to understand where Obama is coming from.

Dinner Party Recipes

Saturday night we had our friends Spungen and Salsola (aka Mr. Spungen) over for dinner. They got a sitter for their kid and came for a night of adult relaxation. A very good time was had by all four of us.

Our main course was a two-pound London Broil, marinated in olive oil, garlic, green onions, parsley, and finely-chopped red bell peppers. Blanched asparagus spears and roasted rosemary potatoes rounded out the meal. We had a nice caprese salad to start (fresh basil makes all the difference) and peanut-butter brownies for dessert. But what really took it over the top, if I do say so myself, was the simple, rich sauce:

1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. flour
1 tbsp. powdered garlic
1/2 tsp. chive
1/4 tsp. saffron
dash cayenne pepper

Combine the cream and flour while cold. Place over low heat, and fold in butter and spices as mixture approaches boiling. Stir constantly until sauce thickens and steams; do not allow the sauce to actually come to a full boil. Remove from heat when it reaches a thick consistency and the saffron has infused the sauce with its rich golden color.

Another epicurian delight sampled by our dinner party -- buffalo-grass martinis. Buffalo-grass vodka has a subtle but very interesting taste and it's ever so slightly chartreuse. An olive would absolutely ruin it -- this is a martini that must be made the way I like my martinis -- clean and cold.

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner

The Wife thinks we ought to eat more meals at home. And today, she did something about it. She cooked chicken scallopini with broccoli and a fresh baugette, which were waiting for me at home. Now, she's not as experienced a cook as me and doesn't know how to find the mid-range on the gas burner, and she burned up a lot of olive oil. Enough smoke was generated to activate every smoke detector in the house. But -- she did not burn the chicken, which was tender and full of flavor. I had seconds, and I would have no matter who made it, because it really did taste good. A dinner worth getting out of the office right at quittin' time for.

Good job, sweetie-pie! You're the best!

March 28, 2008


Slate opens up the deathwatch with a great graphic of Hillary on the bow of a sinking Titanic, and sets her odds of getting the nomination at 12%. This is the sort of thing that really moves copy -- it's immediately quantifiable, absolutely unverifiable in any material way, and irreverent but piercingly truthful.

She really has no idea what happened to her, does she?

Legality and Morality

In this story, Wal-Mart is absolutely, positively, in the right from a legal perspective. It's not even a close case. Whe your health insurer pays your health care costs resulting from an injury, and that injury is proven to have been the responsibility of a third party, your insurer gets a right of subrogation on your recovery from that third party, up to the amount of money that the insurer actually paid on your behalf. That's so universal as to be an axiom of insurance law.

Which doesn't mean that Wal-Mart and its lawyers did the right thing in this case. In fact, if someone at Wal-Mart were to sit down and consciously, intentionally plan out a way to make the company look as scummy and morally depraved as possible, it's hard to imagine coming up with a plan more effective than this one. Safeguarding shareholder interests is an important duty. Recovering costs is a necessary part of keeping things like health care plans available for people. But there has to be a point of reasonability, too.

Also I note that the Journal omits another factor from its discussion of the case -- the personal injury attorney who filed the suit on behalf of the achingly deserving victim here could have brought Wal-Mart's health care plan into the picture at an earlier stage of the game; there are ways to make that happen. Typically, you mail the insurer to put it on notice of the pendency of the claim, and tell it that it needs to intervene. If necessary, you sue the insurer to bring it into the case as an involuntary plaintiff. That's an esoteric procedure, though, and one that usually only civil procedure wizards can pull off. Traditionally, that's not how a personal injury case is done because of the economic pressure on the lawyer to litigate the case in the most efficient manner possible. Also, doing that sort of thing will reduce the amount of money going to the plaintiff at the end of the day so some lawyers think that it is a breach of their duty of loyalty to do something like that. And of course, having more players at the table demanding money makes the case globally more difficult to settle.

So I can understand why the attorney would have decided to settle the indemnity claim after resolving the third-party liability claim. Dont' forget that he loses, too; in most states the attorney is personally on the hook for payment of subrogatable funds paid to his clients so his entire fee has evaporated and he may have to dig into his own pockets now to pay for the privilege of having obtained a settlement on behalf of his client. This compounds injury to the insult of what appears to have been a very difficult case to litigate.

The facts of this case are particularly odious, though, and Wal-Mart would have been best advised to compromise rather than insist on being paid every penny.

Hat tip to Megan McArdle.

Certificate of Appreciation

Last night was the awards ceremony for the Mock Trial teams. About 100 kids from the various teams were there, along with some of their parents, teachers, and a few of us attorney coaches. The program coordinator said a few words, some muckitedy-mucks from the school district said a few words, and the judge who gave my kids such a hard time for the last two weeks of the competition told stories about them and how impressed he was with their performance. Everyone got medals for their participation and my kids took home the second place trophy.

You've never seen people so happy to get second place before. They came so far, so fast, that they amazed even themselves. Oh, they know they're smart, but they hadn't thought they could go the distance. So they came up a little short in the championship round -- they realized that their hadn't made it into the playoffs for ten years much less the championship. And they weren't discouraged about losing the last round -- they're just hungry to come back and try for it again next year. So am I.

What was really touching was that they had all chipped in a few bucks and bought certificates of appreciation for their faculty sponsor and for me. I don't have my diplomas from college or law school framed, even; nor do I have any of my certificates of admission to the various bars before which I can practice. Don't get me wrong; I'm proud to be a lawyer and proud of my academic achievements. But getting a recognition like that from the kids on this team really touched me in a way those other documents did not. When it was our turn up on stage, the team captain stepped up to the microphone and thanked us and gave us the certificates. They were the only team that did that. It's a ten-dollar frame and a form certificate, nothing super-fancy. But the certificate is going up on the wall of my office.

I Don't Know The Solution But I Want The Problem To Go Away

So, I go to lunch the other day with the partners in the firm and we meet up with some other professional contacts out in the community. We're talking about the local commercial real estate market. At the table next to us in the restaurant is a woman who has brought her young child with her to lunch. I'm interested in what one of our companions, who is somewhat soft-spoken, has to say.

"Well, interest rates just came down, but really only the --"


"-- are responding to it."

"Really?" says one of the partners. "Not even the bigger-box stores?"

"Well, they have their own financing structures. If you think about it --"


"-- really can't afford it."

"Ssssh!" says the mother of the infant, who then goes back to eating her lunch with her friend.

"Well, what about build-outs? Are the light commericals coming in yet?"

"Not as fast as we'd thought a few months ago. What we --"



"-- and that's affecting the residential market, too."

What, am I the only person in the restaurant who has noticed this? That can't possibly be right.

"Well, it's a reciprocal effect, right? If the commercial growth stalls out, then --"


"Ssh!" (Because that worked so well the last time.)

"-- just be a question of how far prices have to fall."


"Sssh! Be quiet!"

"True, like everything else, it --"



"-- equilibrium."

"Yeah. So we keep on seeing your signs all over the place. Well, your company's signs; do you --"

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!" (Not much of a vocabulary for this kid just yet.)


"-- a big help!"

I recall at this point an old episode of M*A*S*H in which Hawkeye has nightmarish flashbacks about being trapped in a broken-down bus with some villagers. If the NKVD finds Americans in the bus, they'll kill everyone on board. But, one of the villagers has a chicken that keeps on squawking. Hawkeye tells her to shut the damn chicken up, and then wakes up from his nightmare to realize that it wasn't a chicken, it was her own baby, and she smothered it to death to keep it from crying and attracting the enemy soldiers.

And as the little kid at the next table keeps on emitting these loud, piercing cries that drown out the otherwise intelligent conversation going on, I'm really seeing the upside to Hawkeye's request.

All of which is kind of unfair of me. This woman was out and about and you can't leave a young kid unattended, so she probably had no other option but to take her child with her. And the kid is young enough that his impulse control is not yet developed and he's learning how to vocalize. Making loud noises is fun and it gets you attention, so the kid doesn't see a downside to turning the volume up to eleven and letting loose whenever he feels like it. That's just what it is to be around a one-year-old or however old he was.

So while I was really irritated by the child-noise, I tried my best to be patient with it. The mother's ineffectual "Ssh" response to the piercing shrieks was actually more annoying to me than the shrieks themselves. It was like she either didn't care that everyone in the restaurant was treated to her son's imitation of a banshee's mating call, or she thought that treating him like a teenager who already knew better than to behave that was was ever going to do anything.

I don't know what the solution is. Certainly the woman has as much right as anyone else to go to the restaurant and get a meal. Certainly she has the right to bring her kid with her and there's no real controlling the kid. But I didn't ask for that kid. I came to the restaurant hoping for some interesting conversation and I missed a good portion of what was said because of how the kid was acting. No matter how blamelessly the situation evolved, I was quite frustrated.

While I'll concede that sometimes little kids are really really cute, I have so little tolerance for that sort of behavior by them that I'm afraid I'd do what the Korean woman did in the TV show if I had to be around it for very long. Hell, I couldn't handle a cat whining and meowing at me for the hour or so I've been writing tonight and wound up tossing a dog-toy at her to get her to shut up. Ye Gods, how would I handle having a kid around all the time without winding up in prison?

Not all parents are like this one. Many actively work to keep their kids' behavior within tolerable limits while out and about. But so many do not. I wish there was more stuff like this out there

Empty Aisles: A Matter Of Economics

Declining Marriage Rates

Why aren’t Brits getting married anymore? The marriage rate is at a historic low in the UK – the marriage rate is lower now than since the Brits started keeping records of this sort of thing, and there are fewer marriages at all than since 1895, despite the population nearly doubling in the past century plus. Here are the available theories fleshed out from various sources (some in the article, some in reader comments to the article, some from external sources bemoaning the declining marriage rate in various parts of the industrialized world) to explain this erosion in the bedrock institution of civilization:
  1. British social welfare programs disincentivize marriage. Couples find that their aggregate individual benefits from the government are greater than those issued to married couples.
  2. Taxes on married couples are higher than they are on individuals and therefore disincentivizes marriage. Couples find that their aggregate tax burdens as individuals are less than they would be if they were taxed as a married couple.
  3. The British people are less religious than they have been at any time since the tail end of the Victorian Era, so the moral impetus for marriage instead of cohabitation has declined.
  4. Marriage had already fallen out of fashion some time ago but there were a lot of “sham marriages” performed for immigration purposes; now that the government has begun to examine immigration and naturalization files more closely, that numerical prop has been taken away.
  5. Since the United Kingdom recognized same-sex marriage, heterosexual couples have decided that marriage doesn’t mean anything important anymore and therefore aren’t getting married.
  6. Men fear oppressively pro-female divorce laws and therefore refuse to get married at all.
  7. British men are a bunch of commitment-phobes and since the women give it up without getting the rings, they see no reason to get married in the first place.
Although some have suggested that same-sex marriage harms mixed-sex marriage rates (prominently Stanley Kurtz, whose justification for this theory is a classic example of the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo proctor hoc), in fact #5 can’t be true, since the United Kingdom doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages or even what are sometimes called "civil unions" here in the States (and in Denmark).

So this got me thinking about the issue. Why do people get married? Why do we care about whether other people get married or not? And what does this tell us about how we ought to treat marriage in our own society?

Reasons For Declining Rates

Individual decisions to marry (or not) are ultimately best seen through an economic lens.

Ultimately, marriage is a form of behavior, like anything else we do. When examining why people engage in particular behavior, you can take a wide variety of perspectives, but in the larger sense, they are all economic perspectives because they all, in some form or another, weigh incentives, costs, and benefits. Economics is usually about money, but in a larger sense, it's about incentives and how people balance them -- and in that larger sense, economics is the master science of human behavior.

Economically, then, marriage represents a proposition of many competing incentives. By marrying, you generally gain social prestige, various financial advantages, emotional satisfaction, generally increased access to sex with your spouse, and stability and permanence within that relationship. In return, you generally promise to not seek sexual partners other than your spouse, you lose the right to marry anyone else, you are required to submit to a difficult and likely expensive process of sorting out property in the event the marriage fails, and depending on your view of and manipulation of the laws, there may be some financial disadvantages, as well. These costs and benefits may not be quantifiable (for instance, we can't easily or accurately reduce the pleasure felt from sexual activity, or the guilt a religious person might feel over engaging in extramarital sex, to numerical quantities), but these are real forces encouraging people to marry and they can be considered from a cost-benefit perspective.

Nearly everyone who has married voluntarily has done so as a result of some form of cost-benefit analysis, some means of determining that they would be better off married than not -- and many of those people made similar analyses of previous possible partners and rejected the idea of marrying them. This is true even for an arranged marriage; the focus shifts from the couple themselves to the parties arranging the marriage (often their parents) and it takes little imagination to see how such marriages could easily be explicitly economic propositions because the parents rarely set up the marriages for emotional reasons the way individuals who choose marry do.

Individuals, being individuals, respond to similar incentives in different ways. I might not care about the ability to seek multiple sexual partners as much as you do, so I would view that "cost" of marriage as less onerous than you. However, I might perceive that being married to my prospective spouse would result in a greater tax burden, where you might see a way to structure your finances such that you pay lower taxes married than you and your prospective spouse would if you were single. Then, there's the question of whether sex is more important than money.

So when we ask, "Why do people get married?" (or, in this case, "Why aren't people getting married?") we're really trying to unpack the mass of incentives and disincentives from the word "marriage."

Note that theories #1 and #2 see marriage through an economic lens, #3 sees it as a moral or religious activity, #4 sees it as a legal maneuver, and #5, #6, and #7 see it as a social phenomenon. Which brings us back to the question of "what is marriage, anyway?" which is a useful question to answer when considering one's position on same-sex marriage here in the States. The Brits are not so very different from we Americans, so they likely see marriage as more or less the same thing we do -- is it an economic, legal, moral, social, or religious institution?

Another datum in the article gives us a clue. Of the marriages that are taking place in the UK, nearly two-thirds are being accomplished with civil ceremonies rather than religious ones. This leads me to believe that most Brits do not see marriage as a primarily religious activity. Some surely do, of course, and no doubt the majority of people see marriage as something that has many facets. But for the most part, the most prominent of those facets, the biggest reasons why people are getting married, is not religious.

I think we can easily dispense with #6 and #7. Leaving aside the fact that they are unfounded stereotypes -- there is no non-anecdotal evidence that I can see that men, either in the US or the UK, are any less attracted to marriage than women or that the law actually favors women over men in the event of divorce. And such anecdotal evidence as exists is contradicted by equally unweighty anecdotal evidence of pro-male sexism in divorce courts and women as gunshy of commitment as men are often pilloried of being. Perhaps more to the point, though, is observing that very few people decide to get married anticipating divorcing their spouses later on. Whatever the reason people do get married, surely only a very few do it for the pleasure of later getting divorced, even if they were to believe the law would favor them in a division of property.

The big attraction to marriage, it seems to me, is that it is supposed to be permanent. That many marriages fall short of this ideal is not the point; the point is that your marriage is supposed to last. Divorce is something that happens to someone else. Whether it's for social, emotional, political, legal, economic, sexual, parentage, or religious reasons, people want marriage because they want to make permanent some aspect of their relationship to a spouse.

So what if we rewrite the sexist themes in theories #6 and #7 and say instead that British people (men and women) are simply not seeking permanent relationships with one another? That may be a less inflammatory statement, but that results in a circular reasoning fallacy.

So my guess is that it’s some combination of #1, #2, and #3. The linked article tries to point to #4, but that seems as silly to me as the anti-male theories sussed out in the commentary. How many "immigration marriages" were really going on in the UK? I've no data to back it up, but I'm willing to bet that the numbers are statistically insignificant in a nation of nearly 60,000,000 people.

Social Justifications For Marriage

Why should we care? The numbers I found were from the UK, but there's little doubt that something similar is happening in the US -- marriage rates are declining here, too, and have been for many years.* But so what? Why do we concern ourselves with whether or not people get married? Here, from my fertile imagination, is a list of possible reasons why either society as a whole or the government should care about whether people get married.
  1. Married couples pay taxes at a higher rate than individuals do in the aggregate. Therefore, the government wants to encourage people to marry so as to increase tax revenue.
  2. Married couples produce children at a higher rate than unmarried people do, so more marriage means more children in the next generation.
  3. Any society needs to propagate itself in order to survive over generations, and marriage produces the "best" environment for the raising of children and the passing along of social values from generation to generation. This is different from reason #2 in that reason #2 is quantitative in nature (more children) while this is qualitative (children have better upbringings, and therefore become better adults).
  4. People who are married engage in lower rates of undesirable activity (violent crime, reckless driving, drug use, spreading of STD's) than unmarried people do. As a converse and complimentary theory, it may be that people who are married are more productive than people who are unmarried.
  5. Marriage provides a measure of social prestige. It therefore enables people who avail themselves of the institution to advance socially and, indirectly, economically through the acceptance of their peers, co-workers, and superiors.
  6. We prefer to see people build wealth, and marriage provides a convenient and efficient means for two people to pool their economic resources and accumulate wealth together faster than they could even if they were to aggregate their individual accumulation of wealth as single people.
  7. Married people are, on average, happier than unmarried people.
  8. A large industry has grown around providing for lavish wedding ceremonies and receptions, which generates tens if not hundreds of thousands of jobs for people who would otherwise be unemployed and unproductive members of society.
  9. Marriage is simply an inherent good, like morality or happiness.
As I show below, every one of these justifications for social concern about marriage is advanced, and not held back, by expanding marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Note, though, that the alternative to any of the above is the libertarian position: marriage is a purely private matter. It is none of society's business, none of the government's business, whether anyone gets married at all. To the extent that one feels called to marriage by one's religious faith, this too is private behavior, in which the government has no interest or legitimate business either encouraging or discouraging people from engaging. At the extreme end of the libertarian position, the argument is that there should be no laws about marriage at all.

Every Social Justification Of Marriage Is Advanced By Same-Sex Marriage

I like #1 because it is so very cynical. The government manipulates religious institutions, social norms, and the intense emotions of its citizens and constituents for the purpose of its own financial gain. You know, there may well be something to that. So if the reason we as a society care about marriage is because it's good for the res publica's bottom line, then we ought to expand the pool of people who can get married as much as possible. Gay money is just as green as straight money.

Reasons #2 and #3 address the interests of society as a whole in the creation of children. Obviously, marriage is not a requirement for the conception of children. People are going to squeeze out crotchfruit one way or another. They've been doing it for countless thousands of years through every possible permutation of social structures imaginable (even some Shakers cheated and had kids). So the "more kids" argument doesn't really hold up in my mind. But even if it did, and we could fairly say that without marriage people would have fewer children, it ignores the fact that gay people have children, too. They conceive artificially. They engage in heterosexual sex for the purpose of conception. They have children left over from previous heterosexual relationships. They adopt children conceived by others and raise them as their own. If it's true that married people have more children than unmarried people, and if it's also true that more children is better for society, then gay couples should be allowed to marry because they will have more children. The qualitative argument (#3) follows the quantitative one -- if married couples are better at raising children, or produce better children, than single people do, then given that gay people have children, then it's better for all of us that they raise those children within a marriage rather than without.

Reason #4 -- the theory that marriage, somehow, makes people better citizens -- is fairly obvious. If a single person is less productive and more likely to engage in socially undesirable behavior, then we ought to get as many people married as possible. A gay single person is as likely to spend Wednesday night partying and drinking and trying to hook up as a straight single person -- but the straight person can eventually get married and therefore has less chance of being hung over at work Thursday morning, or winding up in the drunk tank with an impounded vehicle and a DUI on her record than her single counterpart. If the gay person can get married, then it may well turn out to be that she is more likely to stay at home with her spouse on Wednesday night and be a good citizen.

Social prestige is a tricky issue. Remember that it's society's interests, not individual normative evaluations, that I'm concerned with at this point. Social prestige carries lots of advantages. It is generally good for one's career to get married -- if for no other reason than that bosses perceive married workers as being more stable and reliable than single workers (generally speaking). If society has an interest in making available marriage as a vehicle of social advancement, then withholding that social ability to same-sex couples is deliberately holding them back economically. But there seems to be consensus that one's sexual preference ought to not affect one's ability to earn a living, even if you think that homosexual behavior is somehow morally wrong.

Similarly, if the accumulation of wealth produces other kinds of social goods (a larger tax base, greater generation of demand for goods and services and thus jobs, greater material comfort and therefore happiness) then methods to encourage the accumulation of wealth ought to be widely-distributed, and not withheld, from same-sex couples. If society benefits because heterosexual couples can pool their resources and better accumulate wealth, society will similarly benefit from homosexual couples doing the same thing.

If marriage produces happiness, and happiness is an inherent good for society, then withholding marriage from same-sex couples can only be justified if there is a deliberate decision to make homosexual people less happy than heterosexual people. But if happiness is an inherent good, then withholding an inherent good on such an arbitrary basis is obviously wrong. Things that are inherently good should be available to everyone. So if marriage itself is an inherent good, that only argues in favor of increasing its availability, as does the idea that marriage leads to the inherent good of happiness.

The marriage industry would welcome the increase in its market. If we let people get married so that caterers, officiants, deejays, and other service providers can have jobs, then expanding marriage to same-sex couples will simply increase the customer base of this industry.

Fill Those Empty Aisles

So a partial "solution" to the "problem" of British people not marrying -- and by extension the similar "problem" here in the States -- is to let same-sex couples marry. There is no harm that I can see to anyone by doing so, and to the extent that marriage benefits society, there will only be gains in the amount of whatever benefits that will be realized.

But the other way to fill those empty aisles, regardless of the gender-matches of the people who would walk down them, is to understand why individuals get married and why society wants them to marry. That involves a study of incentives. If the incentives are financial, then an understanding of the tax, welfare, and economic benefits of marriage must be looked at from both a social and individual basis. Only when both society and the individuals within it feel that marriage represents an improvement to single people shacking up will marriage rates increase.

Not every such incentive is financial. But I suspect that ultimately, most of them are financial. And in the end, it's an economic analysis.

*I seem to recall having seen at some point in the past that the only states that have seen increases in their marriage rates in the 2000's are Vermont and Massachusetts, but while I think that's right, I'm not confident enough to assert it as a fact and I can't find any sources to either back up or refute the proposition.

Star Trek vs. Monty Python

March 27, 2008

More, Um, Exaggerations By Senator Clinton

If it seems like I'm piling on Hillary's campaign, it's because there's so much material to work with. On September 18, 2001, Senator Clinton spoke about former First Daughter and now high-priced management consultant Chelsea Clinton's involvement with the horrific events of the previous week. On the Today show, she said that Chelsea had been jogging around the World Trade Center that morning, and had just ducked into a coffee shop when the planes hit, which fortuitously saved her life. Senator Clinton spoke movingly of her daughter's proximity to disaster: "...she heard the plane hit. She heard it. She did."

Not true. Pretty much not true at all Chelsea Clinton said herself that she was in an apartment four miles away from Ground Zero and a friend called her to wake her up after the first strike. (I presume she was uptown rather than somewhere more proletarian like, say, Newark or Staten Island.) You'll recall that there was something like ten to fifteen minutes time between the first strike and the second. She woke up at about the same time I did that morning, after the first strike and watching the second one live on TV.

An aside: I woke up in between the first and second strikes because I lived in Los Angeles at the time. It was about 6:30 in the morning and I wasn't aiming at getting into the office until about 9:00. But it would have been 9:30 in the morning in New York City. What kind of management consultant is sleeping in a friend's apartment at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning? (Maybe she was in between gigs at the time.)

But to return to the main point -- Senator Clinton told us a whopper. No one batted an eye or did any fact-checking on it until now. How many of these are out there? At this point, if Senator Clinton were to tell me that the sky was blue on a clear day, a part of me would want to go outside and check.

Good News Bad News

It's starting to look like I've got some appellate work coming up. In a way, that's good news, at least for me -- I enjoy that sort of thing and the opportunity to engage in that sort of practice is quite rare for me. Appeals are research-heavy, writing-heavy, sink-your-teeth-into-the-law sorts of jobs. To do it right, you have to really immerse yourself in a subject, become an expert in both the academic and practical dimensions of the law at issue. I like deep, detailed work; I like the writing; I like acquiring the expertise.

But it's really bad news; I shouldn't have to do it in the first place since I'll be trying to get the appellate court to correct a colossal error that I'm growing afraid that a trial court is about to make. And because of the nature of the work, it consumes a bunch of resources (mainly time) that could be spent working on other cases and for other clients, and in this case, the appeal would not generate very much money for my firm, at least not in the short run. I'd much rather the trial court made the right call and I would have to forego the appeal.

March 26, 2008

For Job Applicants

I'm in the market for a new paralegal. So that means reading lots of cover letters and resumes. The quality of these coming from our advertisement is abysmally low. There are some good applicants out there, but their salary requirements exceed the budget we have for this position.

I'm growing afraid that I'm going to wind up saying to my paralegal, "I'd like to depose the plaintiff and his company's president, so write a letter for your signature inquiring about good dates; let them know that next Tuesday would work best for me," and this is what will go out on the firm's letterhead to opposing counsel:


Some of the cover letters I've read recently lead me to believe that these applicants would think such a message to be the height of professionalism and courtesy. Argh.

Strange Bedfellows Indeed

If the name Richard Mellon Scaife doesn't mean anything to you, then you probably have no idea why this picture is so extraordinary. But trust me, it is. Scaife is the moneymaster of what Hillary Rodham Clinton, as First Lady, condemned as the "vast right-wing conspiracy," a "conspiracy" that she illustrated in an extraordinarily complex chart showing a variety of key figures in the conservative "movement" and a whole variety of political and quasi-political actors.

Full disclosure: As a newly-minted and somewhat more ideologically-strident young lawyer, I used to work at one of the entities illustrated in the "vast right-wing conspiracy" chart, a 501(c)(3) "educational" group funded, to a significant degree, by three of Scaife's foundations. We knew full well that some of the money came with strings attached, like "Attack and disparage the Clintons, especially Hillary." No one ever told me that in so many words, but if I wasn't smart enough to figure that out on my own, I wouldn't have got the job in the first place.

Pennsylvania is the next stop on the campaign trail, a rich prize Clinton needs to win decisively. Scaife's congolmeration of enterprises is based in Pittsburgh. So we are now treated to the spectacle of Hillary Clinton sitting down in editorial board meetings with newspapers owned by Scaife, condemning Jeremiah Wright. Talking, face-to-face, with the man she once condemned (with some justice) as the architect of a campaign to destroy her and her husband.

Question: What's in it for Scaife? Pride, I should think. Victory. This is precisely why he spent all that money back in the nineties -- so he could reduce Hillary Rodham Clinton to having to suck up to him, so he could be a master of the game and have Presidents owe him fealty. Congratulations, Mr. Scaife.

Still, I'm hardly the only person just astonished to see this kind of rapprochement. This may be another step in Clinton exercising what an anonymous DNC official calls the "Tonya Harding option" for securing the nomination. I really like that metaphor. It really distills the Clinton campaign down to its essence at this stage of the game. It also casts Obama as Nancy Kerrigan -- who, you will recall, overcame the vicious and underhanded physical assault intended to knock her out of the Olympics by winning a silver medal. Bill Clinton, the designated attack dog of the campaign, is Jeff Gillooly. Jeremiah Wright is, I guess, the truncheon. So who gets to be Oksana Baiul?

March 25, 2008

Not Exactly Obama Girl

Volunteer support doesn't win elections, but it sure helps. So when you get things like this splattered all over the Internets, a few reactions come to mind:

"It's Raining McCain"? Jean-Luc's reaction to this is the same as mine:

If this sort of thing keeps up, I'm going to have to figure out how to mail a bottle of Scotch to Italy.

Hillary Under Fire

You may remember that as First Lady, Hillary Clinton took her daughter on a state visit to Bosnia, and when their plane landed in Tuzla, there was a big panic because they and their greeting party came under sniper fire. Everyone had to scramble and there was a big panic because it looked like the bad guys were trying to take out the First Lady and the First Daughter.

If you don't remember that, well, Senator Clinton did remember it, and she made reference to that in a campaign stop recently: "I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base. "

Wow. Must have been quite traumatic. The sort of thing that an untrained civilian would not soon forget. The sort of thing that demonstrates her coolness under fire (literally, in this case) and her fitness and competence to handle dangerous, emergency situations. The sort of thing that should give you confidence if she's the one who has to answer that red phone at three in the morning.

And in this day and age, everything gets captured on film. So, like I say, you may have forgotten the incident -- after all, she and Chelsea made it through okay and no one actually got hurt due to the apparent incompetence of the Bosnian rebel snipers. Which wouldn't have taken away from the scariness of being out on an exposed runway while someone was taking shots at her and her daughter.

Here, then, is the video of then-First Lady Clinton's harrowing experience:

If you were waiting for the part where there was sniper fire, you'll have to look elsewhere. Turns out, the Senator "misspoke" when describing the event. There wasn't so much sniper fire going on as a bunch of Bosnian dignitaries and schoolchildren shaking her hand and doing the old-fashioned meet-and-greet out there on the tarmac. In fact, one might have described the event this way:
Due to reports of snipers in the hills around the airstrip, we were forced to cut short an event on the tarmac with local children, though we did have time to meet them and their teachers and to learn how hard they had worked during the war to continue classes in any safe spot they could find.
The author of that particular politicians-under-direct-fire passage would be Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton herself, in her book Living History. Question: When does a "misstatement" become a "lie"?

March 24, 2008

Long-Range Forecast

Take these results with a grain of salt, but the end result is plausible enough. Rasmussen took two separate polls in each state, one with Clinton agianst McCain and the other with Obama against McCain, and simply averaged the results from there. The data also relied on the Intrade Prediction Market, which I have come to believe is really an Immediate Past Events Valuation device. And it's not even April. It's a long, long haul until November. But, like I said, the end result is plausible enough to pass the giggle test.

Here, after a surprising amount of wresting around with my graphics programs, is my own graphical representation of the projection:

As has become traditional, red is for Republican and blue is for Democrats, and the darker the color, the more solid the trend is. So Texas is dark red and is a "safe Republican" state; North Carolina" is a "likely Republican" state and Florida "leans" Republican. So too does New Mexico "lean" Democratic while California is a "safe" Democrat state. Interestingly, of last cycle's three battleground states, Pennsylvania now leans Democrat and Florida now leans Republican. Ohio, however, remains too close to call, as do the other Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Nevada.

Add up the "Safe" and "Likely" states for each column, and you get Republicans with 189 electoral votes and Democrats with 200 electoral votes, with 149 being in significant contention. If the "leaners" go as currently predicted, that makes it 229 Republican, 247 Democrat, with five states making the difference. Of the five "toss-up" states, the Republicans would need to win four if they lose Ohio; or Ohio, Nevada, Colorado, and one of Missouri or Michigan; or Ohio, Missouri, and Michigan. Pretty much all other combinations would go to the Democrat.

Advantage: Democrats. But it's not a huge advantage by any estimation.
UPDATE: gives you an interactive map to play with. Running the Rasmussen numbers reveals Democrats with five winning combinations: Ohio and Michigan, Ohio and Missouri, Ohio and Colorado, Michigan and Colorado, and Michigan, Colorado, and Nevada. Republicans win with one of three combinations: Ohio and Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, and Colorado, and Michigan, Missouri, and Colorado. Nevada is not important to any of these combinations. The site also estimates that with these five states up for grabs, the Republicans have a 86% chance of winning (allegedly based on an Obama-McCain contest; you can read about how they got those numbers here).
I also note that if the Democrats get Colorado and Michigan, and the Republicans get Ohio, Missouri, and Nevada, that results in a 269-269 tie. Which, of course, would put the whole thing in the House of Representatives, meaning that (in all likelihood) the Democrat would win.
None of which affects my bet for a bottle of good scotch -- a bet dependent entirely on the popular vote.

Pool and Dominoes

When you set things up just right, cool stuff happens.

Good Punchline

Ouch. That that, Hillary!

By the way, the meme this week is that it's going to be next to impossible for Hillary Clinton to get the nomination. Once again, NAPP Readers, you heard it here first. I've been wrong before. I used to think it was Clinton's to lose and she'd have to do a lot of losing to lose it. But I dramatically underestimated the strength of Obama's fundraising and organizational machinery, and the power of his charisma and his message. Now, it looks like Obama's to lose, and the only thing that I can see making him lose it is if the Jeremiah Wright thing hurts him badly enough in Pennsylvania that Clinton gets more than 60% of the vote there.

As for a general election between Obama and McCain, well, that's really for the next act of the play. We're a long way from there. Between now and then, nobody knows nuthin', and anything could happen, and it ain't over 'till it's over. I admit that I'm kind of rooting for Obama -- the way a Dodgers fan might root for Whoever Is Playing The Yankees In The ALCS This Year. Not my fight, but I have a preference.

And, some of you may be wondering what a moderate Republican is doing putting up all these ads and giving all this copy space to Democrats. But if you're thinking that, ask yourself this: isn't the Democratic infight good for Republicans? Isn't John McCain the real winner of the ongoing Clinton-Obama feud?

When Failing Just Isn't Good Enough

An "unperforming" school apparently suffers from teachers who just can't handle the criticism inherent in that label. So now they'll be re-named "priority" schools. Why? "It sounds nicer."

The use of a word like "fail" is indeed unpleasant. It implies a criticism, a value judgment. But there are those people out there who just won't get the message unless it's put to them bluntly. "You've performed at a level that meets a different standard of excellence than the one we're looking to satisfy" may be less pleasant to hear. That's because it's so full of weasel words that you have to consciously decipher it to understand that it means "You've failed to meet expectations."

Will teachers in "priority" schools even understand that there is even a problem? And if they do, then what's the point of the euphenism? They'll feel the stigma of failure once they recognize it, regardless of whether weasel words are used to describe it.

The students are emerging from the school uneducated. That's the problem. Where does the problem come from? One of the sources of the problem is surely an unwillingness by the teachers to confront failure.

March 23, 2008

Look, Honey, We're Suburbanites Again!

Happily, the replacement lawn mower worked. By the time I got to the front lawn yesterday, most of the grass was a good nine inches tall and some of the neighbors were no doubt wondering if we'd abandoned the house. (In this market, that's a serious concern.) This makes working a low-horsepower lawnmower something of a challenge (the tall grass does, not my neighbors' concerns). But it got done. And the back yard did today, after we came back from a Freudian Movie Club (today's selection: The Player, which was actually somewhat short on overarching Freudian themes, in my estimation, but certainly a movie worthy of some thought from a storytelling perspective). And The Wife and I had an Easter Egg hunt (we took turns hidings goodies for one another in the kitchen). Later this evening, we'll sit out in our back yard and enjoy the nice, windless day and freshly-mowed lawn, and maybe spend a little time visiting with our neighbors. It's suburban weekend paradise.

March 21, 2008

Expelled From Expelled!

Popular atheist blogger, University of Minnesota biology professor, and intelligent design critic PZ Meyers went to see the premiere of the pro-creationist movie Expelled!: No Intelligence Allowed and was ejected from the line before he could go into the screening. Meyers promised to behave himself (why shouldn't he, he'd be saving up all his material for his blog).

But, Meyers is also articulate and possessed of some influence and he is actually in the movie. Apparently, his participation was obtained under circumstances that were not quite conducive to letting him know what the movie was actually about. So when someone scanned the guest list for the screening of the movie, the producer was concerned and decided he didn't want Meyers in the theater at all.

So, they sent in police goons to get him out of there, and after several rounds of discussion, they eventually succeeded in getting Meyers out of the line. But they got so caught up in their panic to keep a middle-of-the-road academic blogger out of their movie... that they ignored Richard Dawkins, who got in (and who also stood up and asked the first question, which was why Prof. Meyers had been expelled from the screening).

Here's Meyers and Dawkins talking about it:

This would count as a Really Bad Idea because it rather transparently shows that producers have a "no dissent allowed" attitude about what they are trying to promote, belying the claim that they really seek open-mindedness about their ideas.

Cumberland County Bows To The Inevitable

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is on display on the grounds of the courthouse in Crossville, Tennessee. No joke, there's a statue of the Diety of Noodles and Gravy on public display. Read all about it here.

Sheer awesomeness. The mayor of the county undoubtedly had to ask himself which of several very bad alternatives he faced. First, he could disallow the sculpture. If he did so, he'd have to disallow nativity scenes at Christmas -- surely a decision that would be really unpopular with the local citizenry. Second, he could try to disallow the sculpture but still try to get the nativity scene up. That could get him and his county sued, or at least lampooned. Or third, he could allow Cumberland County to be Touched by His Noodly Appendage, which would as you can see looks absolutely ridiculous.

In all seriousness, I think there shouldn't be displays of religious advocacy on public property at all, of any kind. But as a second-best proposition, if you're going to allow one kind of religion to advocate, you have to allow them all. And you aren't allowed to decide whether someone else's religion is "for real" or not. So, up with the Flying Spaghetti Monster! For sheer, sophomoric awesomeness, this is hard to beat.


A Change Of Plea

I heard traffic trials today up here in Lancaster. My calendar had six trials. Not a single case ever went to taking evidence.

In the first two trials, the defendants did not show up. One had posted bail, which I ruled forfeit. Since the bail is equal to the fine for a conviction, that was that. The second hadn’t posted bail and the matter was referred to the court’s collection unit. This is not going to work out well for that defendant. Easy, no-brainer cases.

The third trial was for speeding, with a ninety-five mile an hour allegation – the defendant showed up but there was no police officer. That was a very lucky break for the defendant – case dismissed with prejudice. 95 mph on the ticket often means that the officer suspected that the speeder was actually going over 100 but decided to cut the defendant a break from the automatic misdemeanor trial. She could have actually done time for the underlying offense if I’m right that she was going over a hundred.

The other three trials were photo-robotic red light enforcement. The fourth trial on my calendar today was dismissed by the people. The officer said that the defendant in court was a different person than the driver illustrated in the evidence. The defendant wisely did not say a word and I dismissed his case, too.

But the most interesting were the last two trials. I called each one and the officer placed a packet of evidence in front of each defendant as the defendant walked up to the table for the case. They opened up the packet and the first thing they saw in each was a photograph of themselves driving a car, with the red light clearly visible through their windshields. Both of them said that they wanted to change their pleas to nolo contendre as soon as they saw the photos. I walked them through their waivers and imposed the mandatory fines.

Powerful evidence, those photographs!

Meanwhile, Halfway Across The Universe...

…a star exploded seven and a half billion years ago. This star died before the Earth ever existed.

Yesterday night, the light from that explosion, which literally travelled halfway across the universe, became visible on Earth Wednesday night. To the naked eye, it would have looked like a regular star, but in a place where no star should have been. But the light was seven and a half billion years old and it travelled 4,408,969,030,000,000,000,000 miles to get here without dissipating and was visible even through our atmosphere and even in an urban environment. That's 4.4 sextillion miles.

Try to imagine 4.4 sextillion of something – let’s say, jelly beans. Let’s say you could fit maybe 20 jelly beans in a container one inch by one inch by one inch. If so, 4.4 sextillion jelly beans would be 1,500 times the size of the Earth. It’s just too large a number. It only makes sense as a mathematical abstraction. The whole idea of a star, forty times the size of our sun, exploding and releasing so much power and energy as to instantly vaporize any planets that might have been around it, producing so much light that it could be seen across the entire universe, is so awesomely huge a concept that I do not think the human mind is capable of really understanding it.

Here’s something else that will really bake your noodle. The universe is about 15 billion years old. If we could see light from 15 billion light-years away, we’d be looking at the big bang. The big bang happened in a single location. But it would actually surround us and be visible from any angle in three-dimensional space. What’s more, it would appear to be equally distant no matter what perspective in three-dimensional space we used to look at it. Does that mean that the Earth is at the very center of the universe? No – if we were to magically move to any other point in the universe, like say, some planet in the Sombrero Galaxy, the light we would be seeing from 15 billion-light years away would still appear to be equidistant in all directions despite having moved nearly thirty million light years away.

The Universe is an awesomely strange place. There's so much that we're only beginning to see, much less understand. It fills me with a sense of awe and wonder.

Preacher Ray Ducks Jury Service

Ray Comfort is an interesting individual – a quasi-celebrity Christian preacher who likes to confront non-believers, particularly atheists. An untrained but fervent convert to evangelical Christianity, he uses a considerable intelligence and glibness to his advantage in debates. I recall seeing him doing street preaching at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica back in the early nineties when I first moved to Los Angeles. He has bragged (unsuccessfully in my opinion) that he can “prove” evolution is false. Today, he writes on his blog about being called to jury duty in Compton.

As I read his entry, he sat in the veniere and saw the defendants, who he assumed were members of a gang. When asked by the judge whether he would have any difficulty giving equal credence to the testimony of a gang member as a police officer (he said yes that would be difficult because he would believe the officer more than the gang-banger), and whether he would hold it against the defendants if they took invoked the Fifth Amendment and did not testify (he said yes, because if he were innocent of a crime, he would take the stand). Then he asked to be relieved of his “sentence” of jury duty and be given, instead, the opportunity to preach to gang members, in the hopes that this would somehow rehabilitate them. The judge said (properly) that he could not make such an order, and excused Comfort from further jury service for cause.

The judge obviously made the right ruling in finding Comfort prejudiced – Comfort had testified that he would not be a fair and impartial juror, and indeed that he would hold it against the defendants for invoking their Constitutional rights. And it ought to be obvious that the court cannot order someone to sit through a religious lecture against their will. My question is – is Comfort a hero for speaking his mind plainly, or a villain for so obviously trying to get out of jury service?

Get Vaccinations For Your Children

One of the most irresponsible pieces of pseudoscience I have heard of recently is the refusal of parents to get vaccinations for their children because they fear that vaccinations will cause autism -- a fear based on nothing but fear, conjecture, and emotion and not based at all upon evidence, science, or medicine, which overwhelmingly demonstrates no connection between vaccination and autism.

The "vaccination skeptics" seem to be affluent and otherwise well-educated, but the problem is that they're buying into hysteria and making astonishingly risky decisions with their children. I found this little vingnette particularly disturbing:

Some parents of unvaccinated children go to great lengths to expose their children to childhood diseases to help them build natural immunities. [¶] In the wake of last month’s outbreak, Linda Palmer considered sending her son to a measles party to contract the virus. Several years ago, the boy, now 12, contracted chicken pox when Ms. Palmer had him attend a gathering of children with that virus. [¶] “It is a very common thing in the natural-health oriented world,” Ms. Palmer said of the parties. [¶] She ultimately decided against the measles party for fear of having her son ostracized if he became ill.

This well-educated, middle-class mother from San Diego doesn't mind the idea of "naturally" exposing her unvaccinated, unprotected child to a disease that can cause encephalitis, crippling pneumonia, blindness, and death, but only stops she doesn't want him to be thought of as "uncool" by his peers. In the meantime, she eschews a safe, effective, readily-available, and affordable prophylactic against the disease because someone told her that it might "cause" a genetic disorder.

No, it is not acceptable that she reaches the right result (not taking her twelve-year-old son to a "measles party") for the wrong reasons (she wants him to be popular). It is also not acceptable that she withholds vital medical treatment from her son because she loves her son. Love won't immunize him from measles -- and vaccine will.

This sort of thing ought to be considered child abuse and treated accordingly by law enforcement authorities.

Bill Richardson to Endorse Obama

Both of his supporters are expected to follow suit.

March 20, 2008

Why Is Clinton Soft-Pedalling On Jeremiah Wright?

Why have we heard next to nothing from Hillary Clinton -- who is obviously desperate to find some way to regain momentum against Barack Obama -- about this whole Jeremiah Wright thing?

Because, as it turns out, she's vulnerable on the Jeremiah Wright front, too. During the high point of the pre-impeachment Monica Lewinsky scandal, President Bill received spiritual guidance from Rev. Wright. Here's the Rev of Hate shaking hands with Bill at an official White House luncheon in an unretouched, unphotoshopped photograph from 1998:

So I don't think it's really in Senator Clinton's best interests to hit this issue hard. Or at all. One of the big stories under the radar here has been that Clinton has maintained pretty good discipline with her machine on this point. Right now, it's only people who likely were never going to vote for Obama anyway who continue to hammer on this issue.

This picture also illustrates something else to take into account here. This man had juice. Barack Obama would not be the first President he was close to. An association with Wright carried a political advantage. Does this excuse what Wright said? Of course not. But it does enlighten us as to why Obama might have heard something edgy and decided that his best move was to let it go.

Ron Paul repudiated Lew Rockwell -- and that was for writing absolutely indefensible stuff under Ron Paul's name and Paul put money in his pocket as a result of what Rockwell wrote. But after Rep. Paul repudiated Rockwell's writings, people moved on. John McCain made clear that while he wants to build bridges with evangelical Christians for their political support, and when controversial pastor John Hagee endorsed him and McCain welcomed the endorsement and this caused barely a blip on the radar screen.

Yes, both the Rockwell fiasco and the Hagee flap are distinguishable from the Wright situation, each in their own ways. But they are also similar in that a candidate got associated with someone who has said some pretty edgy and ultimately indefensible things. And ultimately we have to make a judgment on the politician, not on the people around the politician. So if we're judging people by the company they keep, I doubt we'll find anyone of either party who is acceptable. These are politicians, folks. Politicians are like testicles: they're almost never all that nice to look at, they're very sensitive to pressure, and they spend most of their lives in close proximity to pricks and assholes.

Felon Sentenced To Go To Church

This is a guy who at age 17 had accumulated a lengthy rap sheet of violent crime, and appears to have spent at least half his life behind bars. He was first charged with first-degree murder when he was 14 years old. So when being sentenced for evasion of arrest, his lawyer suggests a sentence of probation and time served, on the condition he attends a counseling program run by a local Baptist church, and goes to that church for eight Sundays in a row. The prosecutor thought that was a good idea and concurred in the suggested sentence, which then received the blessing of the judge.

You might think that I'm upset at this because it blurs the line between church and state. In fact, I'm not all that worked up about that. His attorney suggested it, which means he suggested it, and he can go to church if he wants to. Yes, it's a little dicey to be ordered to go to church, but he suggested it first which means that it is a church of his own choosing.

What I do this is absolutely asinine is that the prosecutor and the judge went along with it. It is patently obvious to me that the church, and its counseling program, and its pastor, and even the best possible messages that the church could be giving the guy, is going to do absolutely nothing to turn this guy around. Seriously -- do any of you believe that eight weeks of church is going to rehabilitate a guy who started killing dudes when he was fourteen? Running from the cops is just the beginning with this guy. The newspaper obviously did not have to look that hard to find very recent history of drugs, guns, domestic disputes with his baby-mommas, and killing dudes. This is the sort of guy that prosecutors say is "serving a life sentence on the installment plan." And everyone involved in this story should have known that.

Those had better be some world-class sermons that pastor gives. That had better be one amazing counseling program -- one good enough to get studied by and written up in textbooks and studied by all kinds of behavioral psychologists and criminologists, if eight weeks of counseling and being preached at is going to turn a stone killer around.

Even my most religious and faithful friends will agree with me -- he can go to church twice a day for the rest of his life, but if he doesn't want to change his own behavior, being in the building won't do him a bit of good. Something has to change within himself for this guy to start changing his behavior. I'm sure that religion has done this for some people in the past. But there is absolutely no sign that this will happen in the next eight weeks.

So yeah, I have some reservations about the involvement of a church in the administration of criminal justice. But that's nothing that the consent of the party involved can't largely defuse for me. My real reservation is that the authorities in charge of handling this and representing the interests of society at large not only went along with the suggestion of a slap-on-the-wrist sentence but rather that they entertained even the slightest consideration that this will do anything at all to change this guy's behavior. It's wishful, magical thinking on the part of the judge and the prosecutor that this "go to church" sentence will make even an iota of difference.

Dirty Trickery Afoot!

Looks like three times this year, someone was snooping around without authorization in Barack Obama's passport file. The people who did it were private contractors, and the State Department says that it looks more like idle curiosity than something political -- but come on. I don't believe that and you'd be insulted if I asked you to. Who believes that? Pick your villian -- Hillary Clinton or Republican attack dogs -- but someone was looking for dirt and got caught.

Cui bono?

UPDATE: It appears that all the candidates have had their files broken into. Yet the State Department insists that this was all the result of idle curiosity. Call me a skeptic ("You're a skeptic, TL!") but it still doesn't ring true. You don't summarily fire people for idle curiosity -- you write them up or at worst you suspend them. There's more going on here than idle curiosity.

A Robot Is A Dog's Best Friend

Astonishingly cute.

Hat tip to the prolific Andrew Sullivan.

The Difference Explained

I’ve been wondering for quite a while why a civil union for a gay couple is not equal to a marriage for a straight couple. Obviously, the Federal government does not recognize any kind of same-sex family institution, so that’s a pretty big deal. But I’ve written on many occasions that if a state creates a legal institution that gives all the same rights as marriage, that seems to be the most a state can do, and that leaves someone like me (who thinks that gay couples should be treated the same as straight couples) satisfied. From there, I’ve said that the onus is on the advocates of same-sex marriage to explain why the semantic difference between a civil union and a marriage makes a difference.

Well, at last, I’ve found a reasonably well-argued and articulate attempt to do that. I found it in the Gray Lady, where it was presented as a feature news story as opposed to the op-ed piece that it really is. But no matter – the ideas it throws out are worth considering. The examples the article refers to are from Connecticut, which has a “full equivalency” law – the Connecticut civil union is supposed to provide the same rights under Connecticut law as marriage.

Here’s what the Gray Lady found: a woman was giving birth to her son, and was asked for information on a hospital intake form – “Are you married, widowed, divorced or single?” She was in a Connecticut civil union, and so the proper answer was “none of the above.” When the intake nurse checked “single,” she had to protest that she was “closer to married than to single.” During an in-processing for a recently-hired teacher, he realized that while filling out paperwork with the HR worker, he would basically have to come out of the closet to this person he barely knew, and he was not comfortable with doing that.

There is also a regulation at the University of Connecticut that season tickets for the basketball games can only be passed along to a spouse, not to a partner in a civil union. That seems like it is the UConn Athletic Department’s rule not catching up with the civil union law; the change is so obvious under Connecticut’s full equivalency civil union law that it ought to get cleared up without litigation – a partner in a civil union is a spouse under a full equivalency law. It ought not to take a lawsuit to change the rule, but if UConn does refuse to change the rule, the lawsuit is a dead-bang winner.

So the difference in nomenclature basically comes down to these two points, at least as articulated in this article:

Civil unions require constant “haggling, litigation and explanation,” said Evan Wolfson, the founder of a New York-based advocacy group called Freedom to Marry. Being married, he said, means “you don’t have to fumble for documents. You don’t have to hire an attorney, and you don’t have to consult a dictionary. You’re married. You know what it means, and everyone else knows what it means.”

* * *

Jeffrey Busch, a lawyer who is also a plaintiff in the case, said that he and his partner, Stephen Davis, reluctantly obtained a civil union for the sake of their son, Eli. “It was an awful experience,” Mr. Busch said. “In order to get those rights, we had to make a public declaration of inferiority. [¶] Being in a civil union is not the same as married,” he said. “If it was, they would call it marriage. I don’t know anybody who would give up their marriage for a civil union.”

The first point is that a civil union necessarily creates substantial bureaucratic and legal transaction costs despite the best efforts of a state to make it a "full equivalent." The second point is that the nomenclature has inherent value. I buy the first argument more than I do the second one.

The article also points out that the absence of the ability to file a joint federal tax return creates logistical difficulties for a “unionized” couple to prepare a state tax return. Most tax preparers have to work up a “dummy” joint Federal return because most state tax forms import information from the Federal forms. So that means that while, in theory, the “unionized” couple need only file a single joint state tax return, the preparer must do twice the work – prepare a dummy joint federal return, then prepare the joint state return, then prepare each partner’s individual federal return. As a result, most preparers must charge a higher fee for putting together tax returns for a “unionized” couple. Then there is the issue of whether a “unionized” partner is liable for taxes for employment benefits gained through his or her spouse (under Federal law, it seems they would be). Those issues, however, seems to be the Federal government’s fault and not that of the state of Connecticut.

Overall, it's an interesting point. I do not think, though, that the bureaucratic inconvenience, particularly when instigated by private parties rather than governmental entities, is sufficiently grave to make this a case of "separate but equal" being inherently unequal. Still, it's a more substantive point than I've heard yet made in that direction.